Evangelical Christianity preaches against sex before marriage. In reality, 80 percent of evangelical Christians have sex before marriage. How to resolve this struggle has always been a conflict for evangelical Christians. Should the result of all this sexual flaunting of the rules be that believers be punished with unintended pregnancies, abortions, and STDs? Or should the only result be that they feel guilty (needlessly, in my opinion), and resolve it through prayer and asking forgiveness instead of suffering often life-destroying negative consequences?
Until recently, the resounding answer was mostly “premarital sex is more evil than most other sins, and life ruination should always be a possibility.” As part of this, contraceptive use was discouraged, at least outside of marriage, and evangelicals often joined Catholics in promoting anti-science propaganda designed to convince young people that contraception is less effective than it is. That mentality might just be bending to reality a bit, according to David Sessions, writing for the Daily Beast. Sessions reports that some evangelicals are beginning to suggest the chastity-or-else mentality might be a tad too unrealistic, and that encouraging contraception as a fallback plan might be the only way to stem the tide of negative sexual health outcomes affecting their community, including what for them seems to be an embarrassingly high abortion rate. (Thirteen percent of women seeking abortions self-identify as evangelical.)
Sessions notes that last fall, Relevant, a magazine for young evangelicals, basically argued against the absolutist attitudes against premarital sex before offering a mealy-mouthed and thoroughly unpersuasive “just because” defense of it. More interestingly, the National Association of Evangelicals (which is admittedly to the left of a lot of the right wing churches that dominate coverage of evangelical Christianity in the media) has been quietly moving more towards an attitude of tolerance about the reality of premarital sex, even going so far as to work with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. You know, even though the National Campaign is behind this adorable campaign to help women really get comfortable with the idea of regular contraceptive use.
Sessions makes clear that much of the evangelical community isn’t happy with this and is definitely refusing to go down without a huge fight, but even so, I suspect he underestimates how much anti-contraception attitudes have become a larger part of the self-image of the Christian right. For many, the whole point of being an evangelical Christian is it gives them a God to justify their misogyny, and subsequently they’re never, ever going to get behind language like “prevent unplanned pregnancy” strictly because it stinks of respecting female autonomy on a level they can’t agree to.
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Additionally, we can’t underestimate the competition with the Catholics in the Lady Hating Olympics as a motivation here. As Sessions notes:
Whichever flavor it comes in, the determination to double down on a floundering doctrine is driven by a conviction that religion is uncompelling if it fails to make significant demands on an individual’s lifestyle. These demands are always partially if not predominantly sexual, whether they are advocated by Catholics like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who made the argument in his recent book, or Eastern Orthodox converts like conservative blogger Rod Dreher.
Since the sacrifices are primarily on the shoulders of women, basically what this amounts to is who can prove they’re the godliest by who can beat on women the most by pushing unintended pregnancy and even cancer on them as punishment for sex. With the recent success the Catholic Church has had in getting anti-contraception media attention in this weird competition, we can’t expect that conservative evangelicals are going to just roll over and let them win. The Catholic Church has set a high bar in prudery by discouraging condom use despite the AIDS epidemic; being unwilling to punish people here at home for sex with unplanned pregnancy and STDs just looks weak in comparison.
Still, the evangelical community does have other pressures on it. It’s not secret that young people are fleeing evangelical churches in record numbers. Forty-three percent of high school kids that are devout church-goers stop going by their twenties. There’s many reasons for this, but a major one is the expectation that they basically give up the chance to have sex while they’re still young and limber. Most people have sex around age 17, but the average age of marriage is 27. Expecting people to spend the first decade of their sexual lives celibate while everyone else is whooping it up is simply too much to ask.
Of course, as Sessions points out, a handful of evangelicals such as Mark Regnerus have offered early marriage as a solution to the problem. Of course, few are so bold as to claim 17-year-olds should be getting married, but instead they often argue that 21 is okay. But this simply isn’t the solution that its proponents want to pretend it is. For one thing, red states already have higher divorce rates in no small part because of the pressure to marry younger. Guilt-tripping people who aren’t sure yet into marriage so they can have sex isn’t going to do much but raise that divorce rate even more, returning evangelicals to the question of whether or not they’d rather have more premarital sex that hurts no one or more divorces that tear families apart. (Yes, I’m aware Regnerus showed that early-twenties marriages have lower divorce rates than we think, but he was measuring people who wanted to get married, not people who thought better of it and, duh, didn’t get married.)
Perhaps the largest problem here is that the debate is being conducted as if contraception and premarital sex were synonymous concepts. Even if a believer waits until marriage, she’ll still need contraception within the marriage, unless the church is also proposing that couples have infrequent sex that ends completely when their family is complete. And, as the high unplanned pregnancy rate in the evangelical community demonstrates, there’s no reason to think that not having contraception knowledge or access means people won’t have sex. Perhaps the most useful thing the growing pro-contraception group in the evangelical community can do is point out, over and over, that contraception and premarital sex aren’t synonymous, until their opponents get it.